Has Law School Become a Dead End Trap for the Unwary?

Hattip to Instapundit.

Law Prof Brian Tamanaha explains it all:

It’s grim reading. The observations are raw, bitter, and filled with despair. It is easier to avert our eyes and carry on with our pursuits. But please, take a few moments and force yourself to look at Third Tier Reality, Esq. Never, Exposing the Law School Scam, Jobless Juris Doctor, Temporary Attorney: The Sweatshop Edition, and linked sites. Read the posts and the comments. These sites are proliferating, with thousands of hits.

Look past the occasional vulgarity and disgusting pictures. Don’t dismiss the posters as whiners. To a person they accept responsibility for their poor decisions. But they make a strong case that something is deeply wrong with law schools.

Their complaint is that non-elite law schools are selling a fraudulent bill of goods. Law schools advertise deceptively high rates of employment and misleading income figures. Many graduates can’t get jobs. Many graduates end up as temp attorneys working for $15 to $20 dollars an hour on two week gigs, with no benefits. The luckier graduates land jobs in government or small firms for maybe $45,000, with limited prospects for improvement. A handful of lottery winners score big firm jobs.

And for the opportunity to enter a saturated legal market with long odds against them, the tens of thousands newly minted lawyers who graduate each year from non-elite schools will have paid around $150,000 in tuition and living expenses, and given up three years of income. Many leave law school with well over $100,000 in non-dischargeable debt, obligated to pay $1,000 a month for thirty years.

This dismal situation was not created by the current recession—which merely spread the pain up the chain into the lower reaches of elite schools. This has been going on for years.

The law graduates posting on these sites know the score. They know that law schools pad their employment figures—96% employed—by counting as “employed” any job at all, legal or non-legal, including part time jobs, including unemployed graduates hired by the school as research assistants (or by excluding unemployed graduates “not currently seeking” a job, or by excluding graduates who do not supply employment information). They know that the gaudy salary numbers advertised on the career services page—“average starting salary $125,000 private full time employment”—are actually calculated based upon only about 25% of the graduating class (although you can’t easily figure this out from the information provided by the schools). They know all this because they know of too many classmates who didn’t get jobs or who got low paying jobs—the numbers don’t jibe with their first hand knowledge.

They know the score now. But they didn’t know it when they first applied to law school. They bought into the numbers provided by law schools. The mission of these sites is to educate, to warn away, the incoming crop of prospective law students—to save them from becoming victims of the law school scam.
Wait a minute, we protest.

Law professors are not scammers. We advance the rule of law and justice. We promote efficient legal institutions. We develop legal knowledge and knowledge about law for the good of society. We are the conscience of the legal profession. Indeed, we made a financial sacrifice to become academics when we could have earned more money as practicing lawyers.

The students made their choices. They should have done more research. They should have thought more carefully about the consequences of taking on so much debt. It was their foolish over-optimism to think they would place among the top 10% of the class and land the scarce corporate law jobs. They should have known better. (If the numbers on our website are misleading it’s the Administration’s fault; and we don’t set the high tuition.) Don’t blame us.

It is their dream to become a lawyer—we provide them with the opportunity and what they make of it is up to them. Besides, a law degree is valuable even if you don’t get a job as a lawyer. It improves your reasoning ability. It opens all kinds of doors.
When annual tuition was $10,000 to $15,000, these rationalizations had enough truth, or at least plausibility, to hold up. When annual tuition reaches $30,000 to $40,0000, however, it begins to sound hollow. Students at many law schools are putting out a huge amount of money for meager opportunities.

Go here to read the depressing rest.

I have cautioned readers before on the drawbacks of going to law school here and here.  When I graduated from law school I had $7,000 in debt which was slightly under half of my first year salary of $16,000.00.  (I was called in by the local IRS office because they had a hard time believing that any attorney would be earning so little.)  Now many fledgling attorneys are graduating owing 100k-150k, with many of them earning around 40k their first year if they can find any job in this pig of an economy.  If I had faced that type of debt to earnings ratio when I went to law school, the world would now have one less attorney.

My eldest son is starting college in the Fall.  He has expressed a desire to go on to law school and practice law with me, although I have told him that I believe there are many easier ways to earn money than the path I have chosen.  Assuming he persists in this desire, his mother and I will pay for law school for him, which is frankly the only way I would even consider going to law school today.

I have no complaints about my professional life.  I have been self-employed for a quarter of a century, rather enjoy most of what I do as an attorney and make a decent living doing it.  However, if I had been saddled with a debt two to three times my annual salary after graduation from law school, I do not see how I would have been able to handle that debt in the first lean decade when I was starting out.  Anyone planning to go to law school needs to think long and hard about it due to the enormous cost and limited initial return for most attorneys. 

17 Responses to Has Law School Become a Dead End Trap for the Unwary?

  • This post really cannot be written enough. Law School has become an extremely risky financial decision. The cost of a legal education has risen dramatically over the course of the last 20-30 years, and the earning potential of most law school graduates has not kept pace. For instance, here were the statistics on graduation for students who graduated in 2008, which was a much better economic climate than the current one:

    http://www.nalp.org/08saldistribution

    Spending $150,000 in order to gain access to jobs that pay $40-65k (42% of the jobs in a relatively decent economy) is a very questionable financial decision, particularly when lost wages during the period spent in school are taken into account.

  • Grim reading John Henry. It is even grimmer when consideration is given to the fact that most law schools do not bother to find out what other than the top earning grads are making. Certainly I never had anyone from the University of Illinois law school phoning me to learn about my first 16k year as a new attorney back in ’82! I also remember the law school dean blithely telling us that we should take out loans that we could easily repay from future earnings! Fortunately back in those Halcyon days I was able to defray quite a bit of the cost by my part-time employment, something which is far more difficult today with the astronomical explosion in the cost of law school.

  • Amen and again I say amen. It took well over ten years to repay my loans, and I am only now, after 15 yrs practicing, getting close to the “First Tier, First Year” salaries. If I had to do it all over again, I would have chosen a different path.

  • Yeah, if I hadn’t felt that God wanted me in law school, I wouldn’t have gone. Even so, I’ll be coming out with what my generation would consider relatively low debt (probably $30,000, with most of that due to non-tuition loans to give me and my wife and soon to be baby some breathing room). Even so, if I wasn’t in the top 10% or close to it even at a fairly good law school like LSU, I’d be very nervous about getting a job. I feel very bad for those who go to some of the private/more expensive law schools in the country.

  • Law school may not be worth it even if it were free. Debt aside, most entering law school don’t realize they’re probably spending 3 years to make less than the school’s IT guy.

  • I try to discourage people from going to law school. I’m pretty sure I sent some warnings against going to law school Michael D’s way, but he didn’t listen.

    ;-)

    At least he listened to my advice about which law school to attend and which one not to. That piece of advice is well worth his naming his firstborn after me.

  • I agree that law school has gotten more expensive but so have all the other four-year colleges in the country. Although, I didn’t realize that it was so hard for lawyers to find jobs. I would say that it all depends on what the person’s passion is, how deep their passion is, and whether that person is willing to go into debt (big time or a reasonable amount) to fulfill one’s dreams.

  • In a word – college is a racket

  • Jim: Ditto.
    I’ve been an advanced practice nurse for many years & it makes me sick to see the nursing students (male & female) who are being basically legally held-up by those in academia who stand to make money on their decisions. Nurses, like lawyers, are finding it harder to find jobs in a slowing economy & an industry that’s been turned upside down by this administration. Nonetheless, students are urged to go on for higher degrees (& more loans) than they’ll ever really need.
    Thanks for posting this.

  • I apologize in advance.

    “Can you imagine a world without lawyers?”

    Heaven?

    Just kidding!

  • I think you will appreciate this T.Shaw. This is an old lawyer joke, but as an old lawyer I have earned the right to tell it.

    Most people do not realize this, but there is a common wall that separates Heaven and Hell. By an ageless agreement it has to be maintained on both sides. It comes to the attention of Saint Peter that Satan, surprise!, has not been maintaining his side of the wall. Saint Peter calls up the Prince of Darkness and advises him that the Almighty has authorized litigation if Satan does not comply with the terms of the agreement regarding the wall. Satan responds, “Where will you guys find an attorney?”

    The joke really doesn’t work with a Catholic audience since our immediate retort: “Saint Thomas More! See you in court!”

  • I agree that law school has gotten more expensive but so have all the other four-year colleges in the country.

    Yes, but you go to law school in addition to those four-year colleges, not instead of them. Frequently, you even get a Master’s degree in between. That kind of student debt is staggering.

  • Andy, while that is true, lawyers have both more opportunity and potential to earn a decent wage up to being quite wealthy. A year at a private college costs around $18000 (at least that amount) per year but graduates only start out earning $10/hour or around $22,000 per year ( earnings depend on the location where one is living) and imagine having to pay $200 per month paying back loans only earning that type of wage.

  • They were talking glut when I graduated back in 1996. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for the newbies right now. The University of Miami LS was offering to pay incoming admitted students to defer entry.

    http://www.thefacultylounge.org/2009/07/university-of-miami-law-school-to-defer-1l-admittees.html

  • St. Thomas More, pray for us.

    And, God bless all lawyers.

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